Exercising Contemplative Power 2012

Following the Exercising Contemplative Power (ECP) convening, I was reflecting on a quote from Thomas Merton in A Book of Hours.I was struck that what he was saying described what the convening was about and what ICCD is doing in these coming years. Merton wrote:  “the real job is to lay the groundwork for a deep change of heart on the part of the whole nation so that one day it can really go through the metanoia we need for a peaceful world.”

We need only to reflect on the tragedies facing us at every level as well as the polarization between political parties to realize that our future is calling us to a radical shift in how we understand who we are and how we need to respond. This invites us to a conversion, a metanoia.

The women who gathered at the convening understand this and a look at who we are speaks to the experiences which have shape  our faith and our commitment. We are women religious and other lay women. We are lesbians, mothers, and grandmothers. We are theologians and educators. We are leaders in the corporate responsible investment movement and in various solidarity and human rights organizations. We are national and international speakers and writers. We are organic farmers and justice activists. We are spiritual directors and elected leaders. We are evolutionaries and futurists.

Our rich and diverse tapestry of experiences wove together around a clarity of purpose: we are living at an axial moment and we are being called to a new way of being in our world, one rooted in communal contemplation. In our own way we are laying the groundwork for the metanoia which we believe is essential if we are to survive and thrive as a planetary community.

Since 2002, the Institute for Communal Contemplation and Dialogue (ICCD) has offered a variety of programs to “take a long loving look at the real” (a description of contemplation) and the impasses that we experience as we try to respond to the crises of our time. The invitation is always there to imagine a new way of being and doing that flows out of our contemplative selves.  Contemplation invites us to a new way of seeing, a new stage of consciousness that requires new responses and actions.

Einstein said we cannot solve the problems of today at the same level of consciousness that created them. The old ways do not work and more of us are getting weary of trying, oh so hard, to make them succeed. That is why I believe as more and more people experience the power of contemplation and experience their own metanoia the focus shifts to how we can live out of this new consciousness. How can we respond to the ecclesial and societal injustices from this new place? What does living and acting out of a contemplative perspective look like? How do we experience the truth of what feminist theologian mystic, Dorothy Soelle says that ‘mysticism is resistance’?

ICCD decided to explore these challenges in this way: How can we exercise contemplative power?

At the ECP convening 34 women came together to explore responses to that question. Our starting point was the reflection on what exercising contemplative power means and the six issue reflections shared via conference calls from January to June 2012.  Our time together was designed to deepen our capacity to live out of this new way of being recognizing that this is not simple or easy.

We used three symbols to evoke in us the push and pull of one’s commitment to transformation. As you read about these symbols see which one resonates with your own journey of transformation.

The Phoenix In ancient Egyptian mythology and in myths derived from it, the phoenix is a sacred firebird. It is said that the Phoenix lives for 500 or 1,000 or 1500 years. It is a beautiful bird with beautiful gold and red plumage. It is said that the Phoenix flies far ahead to the front, always scanning the landscape and distant space. It has a capacity for vision—able to collect information about the environment and the events unfolding within it. The Phoenix kills nothing and crushes nothing that it touches. Tears from a Phoenix can heal wounds. At the end of its life-cycle the Phoenix builds itself a nest of aromatic twigs–cinnamon—that it then ignites. Both bird and nest burn and are reduced to ashes—from which a new, young Phoenix arises. The first task the Phoenix does is to place the ashes in an egg made of myrrh and place it in a sacred space.  

Imaginal cells

Toward the end of Barbara Marx Hubbard’s DVD Humanity Ascendingthere is a section explaining Imaginal Cells. Basically they are first imaginal discs which live within the caterpillar and which are seen as foreign and need to be destroyed. They continue to proliferate until they become so many that it triggers the start of the metamorphosis of the caterpillar. But these imaginal cells hold the future image of the butterfly.  (Source: Barbara Marx Hubbard)

Rocket in Flight

“A human being trying to catalyze the emergence of a higher level of consciousness is like a rocket ship trying to break free from Earth’s gravity. The gravity that we are endeavoring to release ourselves from is the historical weight of our conditioning, both personal and cultural. If we can generate enough vertical momentum to propel us beyond the boundaries of who we have been, even if only temporarily, we will find ourselves in uncharted territory. But if we want to not only visit that new terrain but become permanent residents, to create a new culture there together, the task confronting us is even greater. Once we have broken through the gravity for long enough to experience the freedom of space, we must create the stable structures that will allow us to remain there.”   (Source: Andrew Cohen)

These symbols seemed to capture both the resistance and the surrender, the dying and the rising, which are part of all spiritual paths and so much a part of this transformative journey.

These tensions exist because to exercise contemplative power presupposes that we are rooted in the non-egoic self, in the self that emerges from Divine indwelling.  Arriving there takes us through many stages of resistance as we get in touch with our biases, assumptions, prejudices and limiting worldviews. Part of the design of the convening was to become aware of how we block our own transformation? How we sabotage our newly emerging responses or attitudes?

We also wanted to foster a greater trust in our emerging mystical selves, our Christ selves. To do so we entered into the life of Dalia Landau, the heroine of Sandy Tolan’s book, The Lemon Tree. We reflected on how Dalia exercised contemplative power when she, a Bulgarian Jewish refugee only 19 years old living in a house built by Palestinians who had been forcibly removed,  opened the door to three young Palestinian men.  One of them, Bashir, confessed that this had been his childhood home and that his father had planted the lemon tree.  For Dalia who trusted her intuitive self this was a real exercise of contemplative power which led eventually to the crossing of boundaries that grip the Palestinian and Israeli people in intractable positions. Dalia and Bashir broke barriers and were able to build something new from the ashes of injustice. (Click here – Dalia tells their story in a TED lecture available on YouTube.)

Learning from our sharing on Dalia’s experience, we focused on how in our own life we feel we are being invited to exercise contemplative power. What emerged was a commitment to: strengthen the ‘groundwork for the deep change’ that has begun: deepen awareness; increase clarity of intention; be mindful, intentional and consistent in contemplative practice; go beyond ourselves, be authentic and transparent. We recognized that the contemplative stance is the alternative life we commit ourselves to and that it brings about the shift of consciousness, the metanoia.

During our closing ritual we prayed the words of Bartimeaus  when he responds to Jesus’ question, “What do you want me to do for you?” Bartimeaus says, “I want to see.” Contemplation invites us to see with new eyes, to see differently from the way we were taught and socialized. Contemplation invites us to continue our evolutionary journey to widen the lens with which we greet each other and the world. It asks us to be and act differently. Contemplation tells us to wake upto the life that is waiting to become, a life that resembles what Jesus calls the Kindom of God. And so we prayed for each other in the words of the poet, Rumi—

The breeze at dawn has secrets to tell you.
Don’t go back to sleep.
You must ask for what you really want.
Don’t go back to sleep.
People are going back and forth across the doorsill
where the two worlds touch.
The door is round and open.
Don’t go back to sleep.

We don’t intend to go back to sleep so as the year progresses you will find here more reflections on exercising contemplative power. We invite you to reflect on how you are invited to exercise contemplative power and to participate in the blogs around this topic.

As you deepen your own awareness you may also consider gathering with us for another convening October, 18-20, 2013, at River’s Edge in Cleveland, OH.  Cynthia Bourgeault, a contemporary mystic, teacher of prayer, writer on the spiritual life, an Episcopal priest. passionately committed to the recovery of the Christian contemplative path, will be present to share this journey with us. Together we shall “Envision the Future: Living from a Contemplative Heart.” Visit this site again in December to find out more information about the conference.

Nancy Sylvester, IHM                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                  

In addition to the reflections on this website the following resources enriched the ECP Conference program:

Bourgeault, Cynthia. The Wisdom Way of Knowing: Reclaiming an Ancient Tradition to Awaken the Heart. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2003.

Cohen, Andrew. Evolutionary Enlightenment: A New Path to Spiritual Awakening. NY: Select Books, Inc., 2011.

Exercising Contemplative Power.  ICCD Planning Committee.

Inchausti, Robert. Thomas Merton’s American Prophecy. Albany, NY: SUNY, 1998.

Wilber, Ken. The Eye of Spirit: An Integral Vision for a World Gone Slightly Mad. Boston: Shambhala, 2001.

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